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The accumulation of books has ever been regarded with some degree of jealousy—an inundation of paper and print seems to have been thought as formidable to the ideas of men, as an inundation of water to their houses and cattle. In these latter times, the danger to be apprehended has been deemed so imminent, that various dykes or mud-banks have been established and supported, for the purpose of being interposed between the public and the threatened danger. Reviews have sprung up as rapidly, and as well armed, as the fabled warriors from the teeth sown by Cadmus, to stand in the gap in the hour of need; but it has been “whispered in the state,” that, like the same sons of the earth, these self-elected champions, neglecting the public weal, have turned their arms against each other—that having cleared a ring for themselves under the false pretext of a public cause, they have ceased to exhibit themselves in any other character than that of intellectual gladiators; with literature for an arena--the public for spectators—and weapons poisoned with party malice and personal slander.
However this may be, the “ cacöethes scribendi,” or rather, “ cacöethes imprimendi,” is regularly set down, as a disease as urgently demanding medical aid, as a disorder of the frame, a typhus, or a dropsy. The writers of satire, ever since the times of Horace and
vol. I. PART 1.
Juvenal, have been exclaiming, that all the world were scribbling. That the number of books has been increasing—is increasing—and ought to be diminished—is the deliberate resolution even of those who esteem themselves friendly to literature. That a great book is a great evil, is stamped with the sanction of ages—it has passed into a proverb. If, however, the evil of a book is to be measured by its bulk, the mischief we shall do is small ; while at the same time, the good we propose to effect, if estimated on a scale of this kind, is such as must call down upon us the approbation of all favourers of the proverb-since it is one of our objects, and indeed no small part of the design of this work, to reduce books to their natural size; a process which we apprehend will compress many a distended publication into a very insignificant tenement. Let no man weep, as the Thracians did, over the birth of a child, and cry, « another book is born unto the world !” For the space we shall empty is greater than that which we hope to fill, should even our future labours ever rival the “ piled heaps” of the most favoured periodical that exists. Though some books will undoubtedly stand the test of the critical touchstone, which we propose, from time to time, to apply to the productions before us, and appear the brighter for the trial; many a well-looking and wellbound volume will fall into ashes in our hands, as the tempting fruit does, which is said to float on the surface of the Dead Sea; while from others, ponderous and unwieldy, the essential ingredients shall be disengaged from the superfluous matter, and the deposit presented either for the amusement or instruction of our readers.
The only real evil to be apprehended from the enormous increase in the number of books is, that it is likely to distract the attention, and dissipate the mind, by inducing the student to read many, rather than much. The alluring catalogue of attractive title-pages unfixes the attention, and causes the eye to wander over a large surface, when it ought to be intently turned upon a small though fertile spot. It induces a passion for reading as an end, and not as a means-merely to satisfy an appetite, and not to strengthen the system, and enrich the powers of original thinking. It makes learned men, and not wise men. Hobbes, on being asked why he did not read more? answered, if I read as much as other men, I should know as little ; his library consisted of Homer, Thucydides, Euclid, and Virgil. As the Caliph that destroyed the literary stores of Alexandria, said of the Koran, so Hobbes thought of his four authors, - if other books contained any thing, which was not in them, then it was naught; if only what was therein contained, then it was needless.” True it is, that for the purpose of supplying the place of constant companions, of suggesting never failing subjects of reflection, and of exercising and gratifying the imagination, a few choice and venerable authors are amply sufficient. “ Make,” says Bishop Watson, “Bacon then, and Locke, and why should I not add, that sweet child of nature Shakespeare, your chief companions through life, let them be ever upon your table, and when you have an hour to spare, spend it upon them; and I will answer for their giving you entertainment and instruction as
The practice of these times, it is needless to say, is as unlike that here recommended, as it can well be ; the British public are almost solely occupied by the productions which daily issue from the press; newspapers, reviews, pamphlets, magazines, the popular poetry, the fashionable romances, together with new voyages and travels, occupy the reading time, and fix the attention of the people — The old and venerable literature of the country, which has, as much as any thing, tended to make us what we are, is treated with distant reverenceits noble works, which every one is ashamed not to know-which every one pretends to know, and which far too few are acquainted with, are much oftener talked of than read. - Their authors are apotheosized, but seldom worshipped,—their brilliant but temperate lustre neglected for the glaring meteors,which are hanging their short-lived blaze every where in the heavens—It is time to look back—the enervating effects of a literature of this kind are too obvious—the uncompromising vigor of intellect, and the sturdy and unshrinking adherence to principle, which have been distinguishing characteristics of Englishmen, cannot for any length of time resist the relaxing power of so diluted a diet. Never was education so common as at present-never were books so commonly dispersed, so multifariously read. We present a spectacle of what, perhaps, was never before seen in any age, certainly neither Greek nor Roman, that of a whole nation, employing nearly all its leisure hours from the highest to the lowest rank in reading—we have been truly called a READING PUBLIC. The lively Greeks were not a reading nation—they were a hearing and a talking people they fed the mind through the ear,